Do you know what to say when a friend shares that he or she is having marital problems? You want to help and lend a caring ear, but you also know that saying the wrong thing might turn your friend away when they need you most. What if could sit down with a marriage counselor and get a few hints on the best way to walk with a friend who’s struggling in their deepest relationship?
Well, we’ve done the work for you by talking with Tony Bordenkircher, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in Holland, Michigan. He sat down with the editors from Wisdom of the Wounded to share insights on how to care well for those having marital problems. Here’s what he had to say.
Tony finds that most people do want things to get better. “People will say to me, ‘I’m doing the best I can, but I feel so stuck. I don’t know how to make things better.’” And when people can’t envision that things will get better, they aren’t able to imagine a new way of being for their marriage. As a friend, you can offer hope that better days are ahead. When you say to a friend, “I believe you’re able to make it through this,” it’s incredibly powerful, says Tony.
People are often ashamed to admit that they are struggling in their relationship, so a caring friend can help smooth the path to conversation by making it “safe” to share one’s struggle. “People often feel like nobody else is in the same boat as they are, so they hide their pain,” says Tony. And when they feel shame or guilt, they are less likely to seek advice or ask for help. You can help by briefly sharing a story of when you struggled in a relationship and were able to see it through. You can say, “Have I told you about what my wife and I went through our first year of marriage?” Or, “Can I share with you some things that I’ve learned through a couple of the rough times in our marriage?” Or, “That reminds me of what my husband and I struggled with…” Tony says, “When we share our story of brokenness or heartache, this shows our friend that they aren’t alone in their troubles” and makes it OK to be less than perfect in their relationship.
Ask Questions that are Caring, Not Intrusive
Tempting as it might be to ask for all the “gory details,” please resist. It’s not necessarily important for you to know “who did what to whom.” Sometimes, if you ask too many “why did you?”-type questions, people can feel threatened, as if you are judging their actions. Rather, you want to ask questions that show you are interested in their situation and that you care. You can say, “Help me understand how this played out . . .” or “Would you mind if I offer an observation about something you just said?”
Offer to Be a Resource
There are two ways you can offer to be a “resource” to your friend. First, you can offer practical, specific assistance, such as:
Tony explains, “Especially in a more severe marital situation, where the person feels in ‘crisis’ sometimes just the calming presence of a friend making a peanut butter sandwich is a huge help to the suffering person.”
The second way you can be a resource to a person is to offer to be their accountability partner. If your friend sets a relationship-related goal or task for themselves, you can offer to check in with them every few days to see how they’re doing. “Think of it as carrying your friend’s face with you throughout the week . . . whether you text, call or see them in person, you can always ask, ‘Hey, were you able to set up that date night like you wanted to? How did it go?’”
It’s not necessary to be a licensed therapist to be a good friend to a person who’s struggling in their marriage. Though you can’t fix their problem, you can provide care and encouragement that provides hope for a better tomorrow. Try these four ideas to help you be a supportive friend.
About our guest expert: Tony Bordenkircher is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He received his training at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. He specializes in working with couples experiencing conflict and intimacy challenges, with teens and their families, with adults struggling with depression or anxiety, and with people and their loved ones caught up in sexual addiction. Together with his family, Tony spent three years serving in ministry in Turkey, supporting overseas workers and the local church. He is the proud husband of Christen and father to Samuel and Ada.